Near the turn of the century, the destitute of Europe sprang on the city with tenacious claws and an honest and solid dream. The city devoured them. They swelled its belly until it burst into a thousand furnaces and sewing machines, a thousand butcher shops and bakers’ ovens, a thousand churches and hospitals and funeral parlors and money-lenders. The city grew. It nourished itself and offered each man a partnership and capacity for hard work. For the immigrants of Europe, a dream dared and won true.
The descendants of African slaves were offered no such welcome or participation. They came from places called the Carolinas and the Virginias, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. They came strong, eager, searching. The city rejected them and they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses made of sticks and tar-paper. They collected rags and wood. They sold the use of their muscles and their bodies. They cleaned houses and washed clothes, they shined shoes, and in quiet desperation and vengeful pride, they stole, and lived in pursuit of their own dreams. That they could breathe free, finally, and stand to meet life with the force of dignity and whatever eloquence the heart could call upon.
— August Wilson, Fences (1985)
Here in the rundown ghettoes are the accumulated results of years of black middle-class social irresponsibility. .That this kind of power was never cultivated is a Negro leadership default stretching back over several decades. It has robbed the Negro movement today of the powerful kind of cutting edge it ought to have. The historically true, native American radicalism is black radicalism, but the history of this radicalism’s bourgeois confrontation is also the history of its emasculation.
— Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967)
In hindsight, the 20th century was filled with adversity that fenced African Americans into a quality of life that other Americans did not live. Their hardships were the direct result of institutional racism and class. August Wilson, the modern social gadfly, tells an uncompromising decade-by-decade piercing, unified story poetically through drama. Wilson’s creation puts a Black face on the 20th century and demands study to value further the souls of black folk. As he creates his plays, he remains rooted in the 1960s Black Arts Movement and offers no apologies for his stern stance. What makes the New Black Arts Movement that he heads unique in the 21st century is the Black life panoramic view he offers for 100 existence years. Wilson’s characters are the 90% Masses that W.E.B. Du Bois omitted from his Talented Tenth analysis. The Talented Tenth failed to uplift the entire race. There is no splitting thunder for him. There cannot be, for the force of Aunt Ester, born in 1619, crashes any optimistic opinion that life improved for Blackamerica. To the contrary, the deterioration of the African soul and environment shatters any insistence that America offered ex-enslaved descendants a better life.
Wilson, the richest voice in contemporary American theater, has revolutionized the stage. He uses fiction to show the truth. Does he offer solutions to the 20th century problems? He records a view worthy of exploratory analysis. Wilson came to the theater from poetry, and there is no denying his power with words. His plays cannot be looked at in isolation, for they are connected. Most of his characters feel uprooted in a society that has cast them to the wind. All of them are looking for something-a direction, a shelter, or a companion.
The 20th century was marked and marred by the color line as Du Bois predicted. Each decade was a trial and tribulation for Black americans. Wilson’s characters are representative of the decades. He lets them tell about the effects of racism on their lives. He does not offer a solution to the “problem” of racism and class. This is not a shortcoming, for his duty as a poet and artist is to depict life as it is. He is an historian, however. His memory embraces the Middle Passage, enslavement, torture, economic deprivation, pseudo- freedom, and human ability to endure. Wilson illustrates this artistically and vividly in his down-the-line plays: the yet untitled play set in 1904; Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (set in 1911); Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1927); The Piano Lesson (1936); Seven Guitars (1948); Fences (1956); Two Trains Running (1969); Jitney (1977); King Hedley II (1985); and the yet untitled 1990s play.
Du Bois and Wilson are of different classes. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, had an immaculate office in which he conducted research and wrote articles, books, and poetry. As a public speaker, he brilliantly spilled his groundbreaking theories and analysis. He was bourgeois and arrogant. He prided himself in his eloquent, perfect Standard English. The flip side of the same coin, Wilson, in the 1960s, accused of plagiarism, quit school in the 9th grade and worked menial jobs beginning at age 16. Wilson, like Frederick Douglass, is self-educated. He received his education in libraries and in town hubs. He began writing plays in bars and restaurants. He often writes on napkins. He slips into his characters’ dialogue and discovers the philosophical ideas as they speak. He speaks Ebonics and Standard English. He is Bi-dialectal. Yet, Du Bois’s influence on Wilson is undeniable.
The Souls of Black Folk (1903) can be used as a lens to look at Wilson’s plays, most of which are set Pittsburgh. Wilson strategically selects 1904 for the decade play in which Aunt Ester an ancient seer, as old as the American institution of slavery will walk on stage and reveal a Masses’ analysis of the 20th century. But there are problems with Du Bois’s theories and attitudes toward “the Masses,” or the “headless misguided rabble” (Du Bois, “Talented,” 11). He ponders: “Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and ever will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground.” This philosophy damaged unity and fueled a class division lingering into a 21st century problem. Wilson smashes the fantasy.
Wilson’s perspective differs from Du Bois’s. For instance, although enslaved Africans worked from “can to can’t,” Du Bois managed to utter: “I would not deny, or for a moment seem to deny, the paramount necessity of teaching the Negro to work, and to work steadily and skillfully” (“Talented,” 11). Wilson’s character, Holloway, rams Du Bois’s statement:
People kill me talking about niggers is lazy. Niggers is the most hard-working people in the world. Worked three hundred years for free. And didn’t take no lunch hour. Now all of a sudden niggers is lazy. Don’t know how to work. All of a sudden when they got to pay niggers, ain’t no work for him to do. If it wasn’t for you the white man would be poor. Every little bit he got he got from standing on top of you.
— Two Trains Running, 35
In his autobiographical essay, Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois outlined a new concept of what he called the “co-operative commonwealth” for the American Negro (216). He realized that Blackamerica “cannot follow the class structure of America” (192) without economic or political power, ownership of machines and materials, or the power to direct the process of industry, the monopoly of capital or credit. Du Bois acknowledges the life that Wilson writes about when he speaks of the inner economy that built and financed churches, funded segregated schools, and provided all necessary services (197f). The Talented Tenth did not lift up the Masses. Wilson paints that reality. One problem was leadership. Cornel West reminds us that “Intellectual and political leadership is neither elitist nor populist; rather it is democratic” (West, p. 1971). Du Bois was an elitist.
Du Bois’s color-problem was no secret. “Du Bois, owing to his Puritan New England origins and Enlightenment values, found it difficult not to view common black folk as some degraded ‘other’ or ‘alien’ no matter how hard he resisted” (West, p. 1968). West says: “My fundamental problem with Du Bois is his inadequate grasp of the tragicomic sense of life-a refusal to candidly confront the sheer absurdity of the human condition. This tragicomic sense-tragicomic rather than simply ‘tragic’.-propels us towards suicide or madness unless we are buffered by ritual, cushioned by community, or sustained by art” (ibid.). Du Bois, who did not live black everyday life, was unaware of its absurdity. “He didn’t feel it in his bones deeply enough, nor was he intellectually open enough to position himself alongside the sorrowful, suffering, yet striving ordinary black folk” (West, p. 1972). Wilson feels the tragicomic existence in his bones, and his characters speak to him.
Wilson rejects the Talented Tenth concept as a remedy. There is no bourgeois influence or presence in Wilson’s plays because the bourgeoisie did not uplift the race in the way it could have. At a Theatre Conference at Princeton in 1996, Wilson said:
With all due respect to W.E.B. Du Bois, the concept of a “talented tenth” creates an artificial superiority. It is a fallacy and a dangerous idea that only serves to divide us further. I am not willing to throw away as untalented 90 percent of my blood; I am not willing to dismiss the sons and daughters of those people who gave more than lip service to the will to live and made it a duty to prosper in spirit, if not in provision. All God’s children got talent (Wilson 1996, p. 7).
In words that cut through class, Wilson adds, “All blacks in America, with very few exceptions.originated from the same place: the slave plantations of the South” (ibid). For Wilson, neither status nor bank accounts, academic degrees, square footage of one’s home, nor clothing erase the common present and the common future.
None of Wilson’s characters are from the Talented Tenth. They are hard laborers at “menial” jobs, ex-cons, illiterate, disheveled, musicians, housing tenants, murderers, jitney drivers, lost souls, and victims of the Madness/Bliss syndrome. Many plays have people who are homeowners. His richest character, West, is a mortician (in Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running). They are impoverished but they live their lives as functionally as they can. The 90% that Wilson’s plays represent are in “the life” and living it.
Booker T. Washington’s “Work and Money” philosophy (Cruse, 20) was rooted in black economic nationalism for the Masses. He was interested in development from the bottom up. He ordered Blackamerica to drop its buckets where they were. Washington is used as a paradigm for certain characters in Wilson’s plays, e.g., Seth (Joe Turner), Doaker (Piano Lesson), and West (Two Trains Running). They illustrate Washington’s insistence on business and homeownership. For instance, in Joe Turner, Seth, a homeowner, has a trade and works for economic development.
Ain’t no justice. That’s why they got that statue of her and got her blindfolded. Common sense would tell you if anybody need to see she do. There ain’t no justice.
— Two Trains Running, 41f
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Toledo presents a long speech about America as a “stew” in which blacks are the “leftovers.” He says that Blacks “don’t know we been took and made history out of” (57). Toledo dies a tragic bloody death, for he represents a radical thinker of his time. Any man who is able to articulate that idea in 1927 would never survive. There is a pattern, as history proved with the likes of a Malcolm X, that the brightest are killed off, the very ones needed.
Holloway, in Two Trains Running, sums up the enslavement and freedom of African Americans and money:
Hell, his great-grandaddy used to work for nothing, for all that matter. I’m talking about he can make two or three hundred dollars a day gambling.if he get lucky. If he don’t, somebody else will get it. That’s all you got around here is niggers with somebody else’s money in their pocket. And they don’t do nothing but trade it off on each other. I got it today and you got it tomorrow. Until sooner or later as sure as the sun shine. somebody gonna take it and give it to the white man.. Pay your rent, pay your telephone, buy your groceries, see the doctor-bingo, it’s gone (33f).
In the “democratic” American society of the 20th century, there were two classes-privileged and no privileges. White privilege overrode the distinction.
For John Killens, the 20th century is the Freedom Century. The term “freedom” means something different to most African Americans. In the years of self-study, Wilson was destined to come across Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn (1940), which offered him perhaps his most profound influence. In Segregated America, in which “a group of living beings” was artificially set off by themselves under almost laboratory conditions, Du Bois made the following assignment: “I laid down an ambitious program for a hundred years of study. I proposed to take up annually in each decade the main aspects of the group life of Negroes with as thorough study and measurements as possible, and repeat the same program in the succeeding decade with additions, changes and better methods” (Dusk, 64f). Du Bois hoped that a body of scientifically ascertained fact would clarify so-called Negro problems and make the laws of social living more definite.
Du Bois’s dissecting approach to the lives and styles of the Masses of African Americans caused him to describe the “grotesque and funny” church service in all of its “awfulness” (Souls). It is doubtful that Du Bois’s decade-by-decade study would have provided a helpful depiction of black everyday life. Wilson, however, without saying so, carries out Du Bois’s assignment, creatively and effectively; he thrives on accurately depicting the lifestyles, aspirations, language, and emotions of the Masses. In Joe Turner, for instance, his characters “gonna Juba” (51). The ring shouts of African slaves bring them to a near frenzy (52).
The eight completed plays have a total of three white characters: Rutherford Selig in Joe Turner; Sturdyvant and Irvin in Ma Rainey. Yet the controlling white influence is felt through countless references.
Around ’79, I was reading Sekou Touré, who was the president of Guinea, and he had a pamphlet called “The Political Leader as a Representative of a Culture.” And in there he had this thing that said, “Language describes the idea of the one who speaks it.” And somehow I found this very liberating. That gave me license to just go ahead and let [my characters] talk the way they wanted to. Jitney was the first play I wrote in what I call realistic dialogue.
— August Wilson
“In terms of influence on my work,” says Wilson, “I have what I call my Four B’s”: Imamu Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden, Jorge Luis Borges, and “the biggest B of all-the blues.” As I read play after play in Mark W. Rocha’s class, a fifth B seeped through the pages and ran down my soul: Blood (Blackburn 2002). Baraka’s influence stems from his philosophy of Revolutionary Theatre: “This should be a theatre of World Spirit. Where the spirit can be shown to be the most competent force in the world. Force. Spirit. Feeling. The language will be anybody’s but tightened by the poet’s backbone” (Baraka 1997).
Individually, Wilson’s plays are exceptional documents. Taken together, they may form the most detailed portrait of African American life that mainstream theater audiences have ever seen. The common theme is the idea of going back and looking at the past, in order to see into the future. Wilson knows the power of the playwright: “We can make a difference. Artists, play-wrights, actors-we can be the spearhead of a movement to re-ignite and reunite our people’s positive energy for a political and social change that is reflective of our spiritual truths rather than economic fallacies” (“The Ground,” 7).
The very idea of America makes me shake and tremble and gives me nightmares.
— Josephine Baker (in West, Encyclopedia Africana, p. 1971)
I had been a part of the tapping of something in the black secret soul.
— Malcolm X (in Cruse, 289)
Wilson speaks the truth of modern tragic existence, of absurd experiences at the core of American culture. Once captured and enslaved, Africans stepped through the Doors of No Return and were scattered by the European whirlwind. They experienced such shattering devastation and sin that their souls burst into identifiable pieces. Like Osiris (We-Sir), who was cut into 13 pieces by his brother Seth and never completely rejoined, Africans in America have spent centuries trying to put their souls back together, but the pieces have a difficult fit. Wilson, in his plays, examines these damaged pieces of the African soul. The struggling soul falls victim to the madness/bliss syndrome. The seat of the soul, reason, and dogged strength, allow African Americans to survive, yet living with ruptured souls.
The definition of the healthy African soul includes one’s sense of self-honor. The spirit feels a state of completion, for there is core-coherence. African unity is the norm, aspired for and foretold. The fusion gives a sense of strength, inner peace, and harmony. The shadow of self reflects this fusion. One is a dreamer with infinite possibilities. Nationalism is one’s philosophy and one’s way of life. One holds self in admiration and high esteem. The sense of right and wrong is fixed. The breath of life is at ease.
Poverty, hardship, adversity, denial of Africanness, grief, misfortune, trials and tribulations, and memories rooted in racism aggravate the syndrome. Together, sometimes, madness and bliss transform into a state of Divine madness/bliss. Wilson’s plays unveil decade by decade situations that lend themselves to emotional analysis in terms of the madness/bliss syndrome. Slavery, peonage, racism in the music industry, in employment opportunities and in the penitentiary, and failure of urban renewal are the sources of problems Wilson’s characters face decade after decade.
In a Wilson framework, madness is bliss and bliss is madness. Madness is not viewed in the Western fashion. As Rocha explains, “August Wilson’s conception of madness is born of an avowedly African sensibility that perceives banishment itself as the act of madness. Why? Because banishment of the madman denies the community a dialogue with madness which is vital” (“Black Madness,” 193). Banishment entails separation from homeland (Africa and America), exile, exclusion, ostracism, displacement, and relegation.
The inappropriate reaction to this madness/anger is murder, self-mutilation, and disunity. The specific characters who illustrate this syndrome are: Loomis in Joe Turner (1911), Levee in Ma Rainey (1927), Berniece in The Piano Lesson (1936), Hedley in Seven Guitars (1948), Troy Maxson in Fences (1956), Hambone in Two Trains Running (1969), Booster in Jitney (1977), and Tonya in King Hedley II (1985).
Wilson stands on healing ground that brings forth truths by which to transform. The damaged African soul endured unimaginable horrors and moral betrayals. Wilson is the voice of a perpetual struggle to sing the soulsong of a people in 20th-century America. His plays shape the social and cultural story of generations. After all, he notes that the first-decade and last-decade plays could be one and the same. The prognosis, therefore, is bleak and unsettling. Those fated to live in an unchanged America in the 21st century must heed the warning.
Wilson is a self-proclaimed race man. Garbage collectors, gypsy cab drivers, the denizens of a diner, blues musicians-the characters who populate the plays of Wilson are ordinary folk. He bears witness to their heartfelt search for a place. He addresses the Middle Passage horror in the persona of what will be the primary character of the century, Aunt Ester.
Aunt Ester and Middle Passage water flow through Wilson’s 20th-century plays. In African American literature, as Cornel West points out, water has had a special place: “This metaphorical association of black hearts, black people and black culture with water (the sea or a river) runs deep in black artistic expression-as in Langston Hughes’s recurring refrain ‘My soul has grown deep like the rivers’ in ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.'” Furthermore, “.the river-a road that moves-is the means by which black people can flee from a menacing racist society” (West, p. 1974). Aunt Ester surges through Wilson’s 20th-century anthropological drama.
THE DECADE PLAYS
1911 still bears memories of slavery, southern plantations, and the great migrations from the sharecropping South to the industrial North. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is about neo-slavery, peonage, and black separation in the early part of the century. It is a familiar American tale about new arrivals in the big city searching for jobs, lost relatives, adventure and love. The play is mostly about the itinerant American’s search for identity into a dark, distant past. Wilson takes his characters and writing to Africa, to the elements of African heritage that white society strips away from Blackamericans. The play gives lasting voice to an uprooted people, freed and forgotten alike, who had no choice but to board in the mean Northern cities.
Anger and hatred underlie this play, for it is congested with the rubble of a race’s blasted identity and frustrated hopes. Herald Loomis’s search leads the characters back across the ocean where so many died in the Middle Passage. Loomis, a recent arriver from the South, with his little girl in tow, is laden with torment and anger inherent in white injustice. We gradually learn that he was torn from his wife a decade ago and indentured to the notorious Joe Turner-brother of the then Tennessee governor. Loomis is the incarnation of slavery’s deepest scars. He is newly resurrected from neo-slavery. His first name is significant for, sounding like Odysseus, he says, “I been wandering a long time in somebody else’s world.” Another boarder, Bynum Walker, is a mystic conjurer and searcher of life’s secret. Loomis and Bynum share a fascination with blood, sacrifice and visions. Bynum helps him recognize the song that makes each person different and without which a person is simply a collection of bones.
The boardinghouse occupants are partly assimilated into white America, yet enthralled in a collective African consciousness. The real issue at hand is redemption. In a magical realist setting, the forces of fundamentalist Christianity, traditional African religion and animal fury slowly build up. There is spiritual confusion after centuries of bondage. The play is about healing and not letting “life blow right through you.”
The boardinghouse is run by Seth Holly, a metal worker $500 short of his dream of running his own tinsmithing business. In Washingtonian style, he trades on equal terms with the white peddler Rutherford Selig. Seth, born of free Northern parents, is intolerant of cotton-field migrants. Slavery, injustice, and bigotry pulsate through the characters. Ruptured relationships, twisted psyches, hardened hearts are this life.
The metaphorical relationship between Loomis and Bynum creates a symbiotic union by their mutual, unarticulated connection to a shared vision of “bones walking on top of the water.” Both Acts I and II close with baptismal exorcisms in which Loomis, to find his metaphorical legs as a free man, must grasp the meaning of the vision. When the boarders, in the midst of a juba-dance, sing to the rhythms of their own clapping, Loomis sees bones rising from a vast sea to march along the surface, suddenly sink back, then, caught by a great wave, come ashore. “Only now,” Loomis says, “they got flesh on them just like you and me.” The trail leads back to Africa, to age-old myths and to ancestors who knew enslavement horrors well before Joe Turner came along.
Wilson roots his 1920s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in the biggest B influence of them all, the Blues. Set in Chicago, the play focuses on African American values, attitudes, and especially music-in a racist industry that victimized black artists. Racial profiling is an issue. Ma Rainey tells the Policeman that the cab driver “said he wasn’t gonna haul no colored folks.if you want to know the truth of it” (51).
In this third decade, “Negroes are dazed and dazzling in their rapport with life” (xvi). Langston Hughes, in his autobiography The Big Sea, says that Blackamericans thought “the race problem had at least been solved through Art.. I don’t know what made many Negroes think that-except that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking” (Hughes 228). As Hughes and Toni Morrison’s Jazz make clear, many had not heard of the Negro Renaissance, but it did not “raise their wages any” (Hughes 228).
It is in this irony-laden time of creative expression and stifling economic devastation that singers and players of the blues venture into the long established white music industry that just recently opened itself to them for its own purposes. Ma Rainey illustrates a single day in the life of a female blues singer who deals with the pressure of an abusive music business. In this play, two of the three white characters in Wilson’s published plays appear, opposites in attitudes toward African Americans. The owner, Sturdyvant, in reference to Ma Rainey, tells Irvin, “She’s your responsibility. I’m not putting up with any Royal Highness.Queen of the Blues bullshit!” In pseudo-respect to Ma Rainey, Irvin corrects him: “Mother of the Blues, Mel.” Sturdyvant continues: “I don’t care what she calls herself..I just want to get her in here.record those songs on that list…and get her out. Just like clockwork, huh?”
Sturdyvant is in business with African Americans to fill his pockets. He does not value his own word. Of Levee, the horn player who gave him songs, he says, “I want to hear more of that sound. Times are changing.. We’ve got to jazz it up.. You know, something wild.with a lot of rhythm.” Then, when Levee approaches him about the songs, Sturdyvant says: “Oh, yes, about them songs you gave me. I’ve thought about it and I just don’t think the people will buy them. They’re not the type of songs we’re looking for.” Levee, who claims to know how to deal with white people, pleads: “Mr. Sturdyvant, sir. I done got my band picked out. They know how to play real good. I know the peoples hear the music, they’ll buy it…you got to understand about that music. That music is what the people is looking for. They’s tired of jug-band music. They wants something that excites them. Something with some fire to it.” Patronizingly, Sturdyvant replies: “Okay, Levee, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you five dollars a piece.” Levee shouts: “I don’t want no five dollars, Mr. Sturdyvant. I wants to record them songs.” Sturdyvant pushes the money into Levee’s pocket, but Levee balls it up and throws it on the floor. The Madness/Bliss syndrome affords him misdirected anger when Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, enraged and breathless, loses control. “All the weight in the world suddenly falls on Levee” (110), and he plunges the knife into Toledo’s back and, instantly, faces prison or death.
The Piano Lesson (1936)
Among the Sioux, there is a ghost dance to ward off influences and contact with the white man. Africans believe in and acknowledge ghosts/spirits. During the slave era, “haints” were everywhere. In this ghost tradition, Wilson acknowledges the spiritual presence associated with an item of contention during African enslavement in America: a wooden piano. Slave master Sutter laid claims on the piano when he traded it for one and a half human beings. As the ancient people of Egypt left their faces carved in stone for eternity, Boy Charles laid claim to African ancestry through his intricate carvings on the piano. As he did this, they became one, for he bled and cried and, internally, died as he chiseled his memories. Alice Walker wrote a poem, “On Stripping Bark from Myself,” in which she speaks of “a woman who loves wood grains, the color yellow, and the sun” (Gates, 2379). For Boy Charles, he became the wooden memory.
The Piano Lesson, inspired by the Bs’ influence (a Bearden painting, the blues, Baraka, and Borges), symbolizes art. Blood memory is a major theme in this dazzling work of magical realism. Another theme is the complexity of African American attitudes toward the past compared to plans for the future.
Members of the Masses, Doaker works on the railroad as a cook and Berniece is a maid. Lymon and Boy Willie attempt to raise money for land by selling southern watermelons to white northerners. Doaker, the storyteller, serves as a referee for Boy Willie and his sister, Berniece, who fight over the piano. The play’s conflict is rooted in African wealth-land or heritage. The piano serves as a metaphor for the legacy of the past (slavery) that has brought these characters to this point in life. What they do with that legacy is the point of the play.
In a Washington state of mind, Boy Willie wants to drop his bucket in the slave soil of his ancestors and reap the benefits of ancestral labor. He wants to sell the piano, divide the profit, and use his portion to buy the farm his family worked without pay. He does not need this piece of wood to remind him of who he is, but he does need some land to build an independent future. He does not wish to sell off his values; he wants to embrace them.
Rich tapestry of conversations, monologues, prayers, songs, symbolism, lofty dreams, poetic language, bittersweet humor, bloody violence, and petty schemes evolves in Seven Guitars. The play, set in the decade and the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Wilson’s childhood, is about the blues and how they mean different things to blacks and to whites. Wilson shows how an inherent sense of self-worth is lost in the urban setting. The lure of the racist music industry beckons 35-year-old Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton to Chicago.
Harsh racism controls the characters. A black man can be arrested because he has money or because he has none. Wilson sings the blues in this sprawling symphony about the urgent dreams and bitter disappointment of blacks who migrated North to better themselves. The play chronicles the exploitation of black musicians and ends with Barton’s death at the enraged, frustrated hands of the entrepreneur Hedley.
Wilson’s central “melody” mourns and celebrates Barton, a struggling blues guitarist who dies on the brink of a career breakthrough. Arrested for playing his guitar on a public sidewalk, he ends up in a jail cell, confused, for he hears his hit record on the radio. The seven “guitars” are the seven characters, with Wilson as the guitarist singing a folk ballad suffused with side stories involving offstage characters such as Barton’s cheating manager. In this play, unlike Wilson’s others, violence is not hidden in men’s hearts. These characters carry knives and guns and are used to seeing bodies on the street. The resolution is a bloody one. Racism and lack of money impede Barton while Hedley flourishes as an entrepreneur. Hedley, who believes everything is a plot against the black man, mouths historical and cultural truths. He is deemed a delusional black nationalist who wields the sword of God with an awful vengeance and dreams of owning a plantation in Pittsburgh and fathering a messiah. He announces that Jesus is a black man and quotes scripture that supports it. Crowned the agent of death for killing a man who would not call him king, Hedley has a rising black political consciousness.
Offstage, Mrs. Tillery suffers: someone cuts her rooster’s throat, her dog is caught, her son is jailed, and her best friends migrate back down South. The rooster represents the black man after slavery. Both outlived their worth. The bird has become worthless because of cheap, man-made alarm clocks, just as automatic farming displaced the black man. The bird, butchered in a scene suggesting ritual sacrifice, is a metaphor whose fate parallels Barton’s. Both were proud strutting studs. Part of the Masses, Barton dared to separate himself from the sameness of the flock. Yet Barton’s entire life has been one of wanting: money for clothes, a new Buick car, and a marker for his mother’s grave. He’s been blocked on every side, mostly by events controlled by white society.
The Maxsons live in a shabby brick and tarpaper house in the urban desert. Domestic struggles amidst discrimination, poverty and lost opportunity are the main grit in Troy Maxson’s erosion. His descent takes the proportions of great tragedy. He says: “You ain’t gonna find me going and asking nobody for nothing. I done spent too many years without” (18). He has the walking blues, for fences hem in his life: racial, economic and emotional.
Troy, too old by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color-line to play baseball, blocks Cory from a scholarship, because he believes his son will be victimized. Cory resents being told to take up a trade rather than a football scholarship. The tension between protective order and freedom is vital. Troy warns Cory: “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars.get you a trade.. I want him to move as far away from my life as he can” (39). When Bono tells him he came along too early to integrate white baseball games, Troy responds: “If you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were” (10). Troy hauled himself up from childhood destitution and petty crime to respectability as a home-owning garbage collector. Yet, his employer has all white driving and the colored lifting.
Financial stress grows when Troy’s brother, Gabe, moves out. Gabriel, injured in World War II, has a metal plate in his head. Troy says: “Man go over there and fight the war.get half his head blown off.and they give him a lousy three thousand dollars” (28). Troy says that without his brother, “I wouldn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. And I’m fifty-three years old. Now see if you can understand that!” (28).
Troy complains further: “I’m working every day and can’t get no credit. What to do? I got an empty house with some raggedy furniture in it. Cory ain’t got no bed. He’s sleeping on a pile of rags on the floor. Working every day and can’t get no credit” (15). Troy feels that he has been standing in the same place for eighteen years.
Lyons does not value his father’s life. Unemployed, he says: “Pop, you know I can’t find no decent job. Where am I gonna get a job at. You know I can’t get no job” (17). When Troy mentions garbage, Lyons replies: “Naw, Pop.thanks. That ain’t for me. I don’t wanna be carrying nobody’s rubbish. I don’t wanna be punching nobody’s time clock .I know I got to eat. But I got to live too. I need something that gonna help me to get out of the bed in the morning. Make me feel like I belong in the world” (17f).
Troy barely feels he belong anywhere. He tells Rose: “I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I aint’ got no tears. I done spent them” (40). By the end of play every character except Raynell is institutionalized-Rose in the church, Lyons in the penitentiary, Gabriel in the mental hospital, and Cory in the U.S. Marines.
Across the country, long blistering resentments were aflame; inequities were being contested, and the stern assertion of black pride was challenging the old passivity and remaking a people’s self-image. In retrospect, the play does not really “go” anywhere. The Establishment did not collapse. Thirty-three years ago, “Two Trains” would have been cast off as an abandonment of political responsibility. But Wilson’s play recognizes that militants were not everywhere. An impending protest rally and dance in memory of Malcolm X only two blocks away causes barely a ripple in the daily life of Memphis Lee’s restaurant. Aunt Ester continues to dispense advice to anyone who’ll throw $20 in the Monongahela River. The hustling diners are caught between self-empowerment and earning bread. The lofty idealism of Dr. King’s “dream” is badly submerged in the grim reality of the shabby restaurant’s grease-stained walls, scuffed stools, skimpy menu and forlorn, deluded, luckless or madness/bliss syndrome customers.
None of the regular customers of the diner in the Hill district of Pittsburgh is out to flail “whitey”. No one is mounting a demonstration or raising a clenched fist. No ultimatums are rendered. A few dreams are indulged in, even if Holloway, ever the philosopher, feels obliged to point out that “The more you sit around and talk about what you ain’t got, the more you have to talk about.” The characters are far more interested in observing the burial rites of Prophet Samuel, who is laid out with rings on his fingers and hundred dollar bills between them-in a nearby funeral parlor.
Between meals, phone calls and ducking the law, Memphis’s cronies discuss the revolution and how it affects them, if at all; mostly, though, they reminisce and fantasize about yesterday and tomorrow; today doesn’t quite exist. Risa wants respect to the extent of permanently disfiguring her legs with a razor blade to ward off unwanted attention. Sterling, fresh out of the penitentiary for bank robbery, wants money, a job, and Risa, and maybe a gun for insurance. He is an eruption of pragmatism, optimism, hopeless naiveté and thoughtless impulse. The play starts out with Wolf, the numbers runner, on the phone. Holloway, a retired house painter and local historian, speaks on life and history.
Two characters seem to stand outside the fence that limits the diners. Memphis, a conservative proprietor trying to unload his place before the neighborhood is razed or simply torched mocks the “black is beautiful” chant. He has suffered many injustices. Now that the city is taking his diner as part of an urban-renewal project, he is determined for once in his life to get his due. He won’t take a cent less than $25,000 from the city. Something is not better than nothing. And West, the mortician, with his black leather gloves and gold-topped cane, is the community’s only rich man. Strangely, his appearance in the coffee shop provokes a round of humor.
Wilson’s chronicle of African American life in the 20th century began in 1979 when he wrote Jitney. It is 1977 and Jim Becker’s world is changing. His estranged son, jailed on a murder charge, is about to come home after 20 years. The home office of Jim’s jitney (gypsy cab) service, like the neighborhood, is about to be torn down. The urban renewal that started during the 1960s [Two Trains] is in full dislocation. More buildings have collapsed. By the 1980s [King Hedley], urban renewal has clearly failed.
Becker tries to survive economically though he lacks the education which, according to Washington, would free him. Had Washington had his way, all the specialty vocations today would be in the domain of African Americans, who slaved at them. Becker’s credo echoes Washington’s gospel of work and money. On the surface, there were innumerable economic and cultural opportunities. But the urban centers were “oases in the desert of despair” (Franklin, 397). The nightmare of urban life provides discussion topics for the characters-housing, juvenile delinquency, family disorganization, disfranchisement, exploitation by unscrupulous businesses, and the social upheaval of migration. As Franklin shows, “occupational differentiation.drew class lines more distinctly among Negroes. While few could be regarded as upper class, a substantial middle class emerged, composed of people in the professions. The great masses of Negro industrial workers formed the broad base on which the Negro social structure was built” (560). Membership in labor unions was rare because whites refused to work with them. As for the Talented Tenth and the Masses, the twain did not meet.
King Hedley II (1985)
Stool Pigeon, King, Ruby, Mister, Tonya, and Elmore lead lives of failed urban renewal, which resemble the shambled environment in which they exist. Nothing will grow in the barren soil. Iron giants reminiscent of a time when shipping was prosperous trap the sky and steal its freshness. Old newspapers stacked to the ceiling in Stool Pigeon’s shack indicate the uselessness of information. Couples struggle to love, but love dies quickly. Life has gotten worse for African Americans. Not even education holds the promise it did in the first half of the century. Jobs are scarce, again.
King Hedley II illustrates how American blacks are worse off in 1985 than in 1944. The majority have not recovered their moral personality, because of racism and economic devastation. Poverty and perpetual struggle are mentally crippling; life is a depressed state. In this play, Tonya is tired of Black people dying. When Hedley II wants her to have their child, she insists that he face her own maternal spirit. She tells him…
I’m still trying to figure out life. Figure out what happened. I got to watch him being thrown down a hole it’s gonna take him a lifetime to crawl out and I can’t do nothing to help him.. I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him. To have his friends shoot him. To have the police shoot him. Why I want to bring another life into this world that don’t respect life?
Tonya lives her madness/bliss syndrome in fear of the past, the present and the future. Her soulsong is buried, as was Loomis’s in 1911. Her self-worth is based on self-delusion. Wilson has woven a tale of mysterious birthright, mystical prophecies, betrayal and murder. There are struggling souls with a metaphysical grandeur and a titanic vigor of language. It is a resonant group-portrait of characters whose relationships with one another and with their pasts summon an entire, highly complex ethos. King Hedley II does not unravel over time, so much as it fumes and implodes.
It is a class that absorbs very little from the few thinkers it has produced- Martin R. Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, E. Franklin Frazier and Carter G. Woodson-men who left something behind them. It is the one non-white bourgeois class in this world that fears to express its own legitimate nationalism, waiting on the benevolent nod from the power structure before it moves to achieve its limited social aims.
Aunt Ester dies of grief. The Middle Passage stole her people from their home and their culture. Enslavement robbed them of the dignity guaranteed by their birthright. The Civil War ended a form of their misery, but a failed Reconstruction brought lynch-mobs and devastation. The Masses of Africans were “freed” penniless and landless into a capitalistic society. African Americans were beaten into a class of devastation. Racism, segregation, disenfranchisement, menial labor for pittance pay, and American hatred caused each 20th-century decade to be a struggle worse than the previous. Things do not improve for the Masses and Aunt Ester succumbed to the madness. Disgust. No more advice will shelter her people from perpetual theft of a decent, wholesome, productive life.
In a real sense, this essay has been about the failure of the black intelligentsia, the black bourgeois nationalist, and other so-called “Talented Tenth” folk to follow through with the vision and design of Du Bois-or any other leader-that they lead the Masses to economic and political equality and independence in the 20th century. A Black nationalist plan was not their answer for seizing economic power and independence. Empty slogans and long-winded analytical speeches have not improved the plight of the Masses. The “Talented Tenth” of the 20th century is now approaching retirement age in the 21st century. In retrospect, perhaps they say it was not their sole responsibility to save the race. Yet they gloried in their Du Boisian status, pumped out their chests with European advanced degrees, and took shelter in suburbs and gated complexes as they continued to write grand yet empty speeches and analysis. Few built African American institutions for the Masses. Occasionally, they wore African garb during Black History Month while making public appearances among the Masses, and reliving over and over again instances of “militancy” in their youth, which were not acts of following through with theories and plans of recovery and independence.
The 20th century study ordered by Du Bois and carried out by Wilson reveals 100 years of devastation. The first and last decade could be one play. When Du Bois was placed in handcuffs and leg shackles in 1951, he was the image of the captured African ancestors who arrived in 1619, the year Aunt Ester was born. As he returned to Africa slashing through the Veil and overcoming the double consciousness, he also returned to his African soul. Wilson, indebted forever to Du Bois, utilizes the sincere energy Du Bois had for his people, and tells the 20th century as it was for his people.
Baraka, Amiri. “The Revolutionary Theatre” in Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Nellie Y.
McKay (Eds.), The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, NewYork: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.
Blackburn, Regina Naasirah. “Blood: The 5th B Influence in the 20th Century Plays by August Wilson,” in An Imperfect World: Resonance From the Nation’s Violence, NAAAS Conference Fine Arts Monograph Series, 2002.
–. “The Madness/Bliss Syndrome in the 20th Century Plays of August Wilson,” NAAAS Conference Fine Arts Monograph Series, 2001.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: William Morrow, 1967.
Du Bois, W.E.B. Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1984.
–. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.
–. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. New York: Schocken Books, 1967.
–. “The Talented Tenth,” in The Negro Problem, New York: James Pott & Co., 1903.
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 3rd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.
Gates, Henry Louis (ed.). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography, 2nd ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.
Rocha, Mark W. “The Four B’s.” [from my lecture notes R.N.B.]
–. “Black Madness in August Wilson’s ‘Down the Line’ Cycle,” in Themes in Drama 15: Madness in Drama, James Redmond (Ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
West, Cornel. “William Edward Burghart Du Bois,” Encyclopedia Africana.
Wilson, August. “The Ground on Which I Stand,” American Theatre, vol. 13, no. 7, Sept. 1996.
–. Fences. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
–. Jitney. Woodstock, NY: Overlook press, 2001.
–. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
–. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
–. Seven Guitars. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
–. The Piano Lesson. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
–. Two Trains Running. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.